Former White House chief strategist and avowed China hawk Steve Bannon is producing a new documentary that will take aim at Chinese President Xi Jinping in the thick of U.S. negotiations with the Chinese government over a "phase two" trade deal.
Bannon, who ran President Donald Trump's presidential campaign in 2016, is using millions of dollars in contributions to, in part, help fund the initial production costs of "Emperor: Rise of Xi," according to his nonprofit group's most recent 990 tax return.
"This film will be a devastating takedown of the 'myth of Chairman Xi' including the Wall Street and corporatist faction that props up the regime," Bannon told CNBC.
The 90-minute feature is being crafted to focus on modern Chinese history through the perspective of Xi and his late father, Xi Zhongxun, who was once the head of the propaganda department for the Chinese Communist Party, according to people familiar with the matter who declined to be named as these decisions were yet to be made public.
The movie is expected to be released around Labor Day, these people said, in the midst of Trump's reelection fight. The documentary has 50 cast members and the production team has more than 30 hours of footage.
The film will focus on Xi's father's association with Chinese dictator Mao Zedong. It will also look at Xi and his family's historic links to the Chinese Community Party and the impact they had on World War II, the protests at Tiananmen Square and confrontations with the United States.
A separate five-hour documentary is set to be released in 2021, these people added.
Prior to his tenure as Trump's campaign chairman in 2016, Bannon produced many conservative films, including "Clinton Cash" that probed allegedly shady dealings by the Clinton Foundation.
The revelation that Bannon is working on a film about Xi comes as the Chinese leader is under pressure for his response to the coronavirus, which has killed more than 130 people in the country. The documentary could address Xi's response to the outbreak, according to one of the people familiar with the movie. Bannon has been discussing the impact the virus will have on the economy on his podcast, "War Room: Pandemic."
Trump praised Xi's efforts to contain the virus in a CNBC interview at the World Economic Forum, saying he trusted the Chinese leader's response.
Bannon has also nonetheless previously praised Xi's rule over the nation, aligning himself with Trump's view of the leader.
"Xi is very impressive. He really understands what's in the best interests of his people," Bannon told the South China Morning Post just after he departed the White House in 2017. "He is very smart, very tough but fair. He is direct and to the point – just like President Trump. That is why they like each other so much."
The latest Bannon-backed film comes a few years after his departure from the White House and his earlier fallout with Trump himself. A year after leaving the administration, Bannon was repeatedly quoted in a critical book by Michael Wolff, "Fire and Fury." That led to Trump lashing at his previous advisor, claiming Bannon "lost his mind."
Still, since then, it appears Trump and Bannon are in allegiance on several key issues. The former White House advisor has publicly defended Trump's use of tariffs and has been a staunch advocate of the president throughout the impeachment trial.
"Nice to see that one of my best pupils is still a giant Trump fan. Steve joined me after I won the primaries, but I loved working with him!" Trump tweeted in 2019.
Beyond his praise of Xi, Bannon has been a vocal critic of China's trade practices, particularly as it pertains to its alleged stealing of intellectual property. He cheered on the "phase one" trade agreement between the United States and China in a recent interview with CNBC.
Trump "stood up for the tariffs and he broke the Chinese Communist Party," he said earlier this month. "We gave up very little in the end."
The upcoming documentary was first discovered after CNBC reviewed the tax return that describes how Bannon's group, the Citizens of the American Republic, invested into the film's production.
"Citizens of the American Republic provided initial funding for the production of documentaries, Trump at War and Rise of Xi, to educate the American citizenry about economic nationalism and American first foreign policy, and other issues that were front and center across the nation in 2018," the filing reads.
The document shows that in 2018, Bannon's organization spent more than $4 million, in part, on what was described as the cost of promotions, screenings, travel and crafting educational materials.
The group received just over $4.4 million in contributions, all of them anonymously, and with the top donation coming in at $2 million. After spending most of the donations on production costs and payroll, Bannon's nonprofit went into 2019 with just more than $66,000 on hand.
The filing lists his sister Mary E. Meredith as a vice president of the group and Dan Fleuette, a vice president at Bannon's film company, Victory Films, as a director.
The other film noted on the document, "Trump at War," was released in 2018. Produced by Victory Films, it chronicled the president's 2016 election over Hillary Clinton to his strict stance on China. It featured a cast of Trump loyalists including former White House official Sebastian Gorka, Blackwater founder Erik Prince, former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski and Fox News personality Pete Hegseth.
It's unclear whether any of the people featured in the last documentary will be part of "Rise of Xi."